Bloody Attack in Southern Russia Highlights Regional Volatility

Sergei Blagov | Correspondent | Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Bloody Attack in Southern Russia Highlights Regional Volatility

Moscow ( - More than 50 people were killed in fierce gun-battles Tuesday in Russia's southern Ingushetia region, which neighbors Chechnya, underlining the continued volatility of a region Moscow has failed to subdue.

Dozens more were wounded when an estimated 200 suspected Chechen rebels launched coordinated attacks on targets in three centers, including the regional interior ministry building in Nazran.

President Vladimir Putin flew to the Ingush capital, Magas, to reassure local officials, and vowed a tough response. "Those who can be caught must be taken alive and tried in court," he told Russian television.

Ingush President Murat Zyazikov denounced the "barbarous action," and ordered three days of mourning for the victims of the attack.

The interior minister in the pro-Moscow government of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, blamed Chechen separatist leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev for the attack. Maskhadov denied the charge.

Maskhadov was elected president of predominantly Muslim Chechnya in 1997 after federal troops withdrew at the end of the first Chechen war.

But the Kremlin has refused to negotiate with Maskhadov and other rebel leaders, calling them international terrorists who must be eliminated.

Putin's adviser, Aslambek Aslakhanov, said the latest attacks were designed to have a psychological impact on the population of the troubled region.

The timing was not incidental, he added, noting that June 22 was the 63rd anniversary of Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. The day is marked in Russia as a day of mourning to commemorate the more than 20 million World War II dead.

The controversial war against the breakaway republic was launched by Putin when he was prime minister in 1999 as an "anti-terror operation."

Chechnya held elections last October, which Moscow said would bring stability.

The poll was aimed at convincing the Russian people and the world that the war was over and a political process had begun.

The victor was Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow figure, but on May 9 President Kadyrov was killed in a bombing, dealing the Kremlin's vision for Chechnya a serious blow.

Alkhanov, the interior minister, is well-placed to become Chechnya's next president.

Tuesday's attacks were the largest in the region in some time. Last September a truck loaded with explosives was detonated near the local headquarters of Russia's FSB security service in Magas.

A month earlier, 50 people died when a similar suicide attack was carried out at a military hospital in Mozdok, North Ossetia, which had treated Russian soldiers hurt in the war against the Chechen rebels.

Other attacks linked to the conflict have included a truck bombing in May 2003, which killed 41 people at a government compound in northern Chechnya; a suicide bombing involving two female terrorists, who killed 14 people outside a Moscow music festival; and a December 2002 suicide bombing which demolished the government headquarters in Grozny, killing 80 people.

Despite the Kremlin's optimistic pronouncements, Chechnya and the adjacent North Caucasus regions remain unstable, with incessant terrorist attacks undermining Russia's efforts to restore a semblance of normality.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.